Designed to mirror a physical experience, Oriental Silk documents the first Chinese silk importing business in the US

Cheval is a new communication design practice where context and purpose drive the aesthetic. The founding designer tells us about its latest project, a book design collaboration with artist Xiaowen Zhu.

26 February 2021

Graphic designer Michael Mason tends to approach each brief in a similar way. He sees a project through the lens of a well-researched, concept-driven visual narrative. Then once that narrative is established, he begins an exercise of figuring out how to articulate the idea into a crafted and meaningful output. This approach has navigated Michael through an illustrious design career so far. Based in London, he’s worked for the likes of Apple, Google Creative Lab, ManvsMachine, Pentagram, Nike and Space10, just to name a few from his career spanning ten years. Now, he’s the principal designer and founder of design studio Cheval, a communication design practice in Hackney. Established just last year during lockdown, the venture has proved fruitful since its inception; the designer tells us about its latest projects below.

Originally from Montréal, Michael’s route to graphic design is a familiar one. As a teenager, he made gig posters for friends which led him to study the medium, and his practice evolved from there. In 2014 he moved to San Francisco to join Character which marked a turning point in his creative development. He describes it as “the most pivotal role of my career,” growing into a brand designer and forming a love for strategy and narrative for the first time. Now, Michael is the kind of designer where context and purpose drive the aesthetic. That being said, when it comes to having a style he says, “I’ve come to realise that having a style – however subtle – is inevitable, and I might as well embrace it.”

Communication is at the core of his work, and like communication in any other respect, graphic communication comes down to being “clear, clever and emotive – but also altered with narrative, if you’re curious enough to dive into it further.” He puts it another way: “Something that’s nice to look at, of course, but also something that gets better the longer you sit with it.” An example of this is Cheval’s recent project Oriental Silk, a collaboration with an old friend of Michael’s, Berlin-based artist Xiaowen Zhu. Together, they developed the publication design to beautifully accompany Xiaowen’s work. The artist’s long term project by the same name as the book, delves into an oriental silk emporium in Beverly Hills.

It’s the first Chinese silk importing business in the US, established after the Second World War. Having emerged alongside Hollywood’s movie industry, over time, the shop has become a unique place that reflects on the histories of 20th Century migration and simultaneously, reveals flaws in the American dream. As Xiaowen details in her book: “Through the worldview of the shop owner Kenneth Wong, the beauty of silk and its wondrous craftsmanship stand for all those human pursuits that link people and places – and provide purpose – across time and borders.” The work has been showed internationally from London to Shanghai, New York and Beijing. And now, this new publication records the project in its various iterations through the people who interact with it and the stories that relate to it, weaving the meaning of Chinese silk with its immigrant and emotional past.


Oriental Silk by Xiaowen Zhu, published by Hatje Cantz. Publication design by Cheval. (Copyright © Cheval, 2020)

In preparation for the book, Michael spent an afternoon in the shop with owner Kenneth to research the publication’s graphic language. He observed every aspect of the shop, from the receipts to the sun-stained sewing patterns to the visual artefacts that pepper the shop and, in turn, contribute to the deeply layered graphic language inherent to the space. Some of these references made it into the book’s design in a subtle way. The designer explains: “All of the shop’s silks are bound with paper import-labels that you have to tear before unravelling the fabric. This inspired the paper belly-band around the book that invokes the same interaction with a reader.” The reader has to tear the paper-strip off the cover to get to the meat of the book, a direct hint to what a customer would experience while in the shop.

Elsewhere in the book, Michael references the stacks of vintage sewing patterns that can be found throughout the shop, incorporating dotted lines to express such in the book’s underlying grid. Something else Michael wanted to hint at in the design is the nondescript curtains obscuring the huge street-facing window of the shop. He realised in time that the reason for the curtains is to preserve the quality of the silks inside the shop, as the sun can damage their colour and texture. In the book, Michael mirrors the physical experience of entering the stop. Starting out somewhere pared-back and unassuming, what follows is a visual experience that steps into a place of “colour and eclecticism”. And it is for this reason that Michael designed the cover to be minimal and monochrome, but once the title page is flipped over and opened, vibrant colour floods the gaze.

A bilingual project expressed in both English and Chinese, Michael additionally faced the challenge of designing for two dramatically different written languages. “Solving for typestyles and an underlying grid that includes both languages, without giving emphasis to either of the two, took a fair bit of iteration,” he says on the matter. Designing for a bilingual audience is something he’s used to (being from Montreal) but this project presented wholly different challenges. At the crux of it, for instance, Michael couldn’t read the language he was designing for. But thankfully, Xiaowen was able to help.

GalleryOriental Silk by Xiaowen Zhu, published by Hatje Cantz. Publication design by Cheval. (Copyright © Cheval, 2020)

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Oriental Silk by Xiaowen Zhu, published by Hatje Cantz. Publication design by Cheval. (Copyright © Cheval, 2020)

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.

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